Archive for December, 2008

Iraq: 9,000 More Die in 2008

9,028. That’s the number of Iraqi civilians killed this year in war, according to a new report by Iraq Body Count.

In case anyone thinks that’s “residual violence” or, worse still,  “the irreducible minimum”, let me put it in perspective:

Even if, despite all the predictions to the contrary, civilian deaths remain at present level for the next three years, approximately 27,000 Iraqis will lose their lives before the last U.S. combat troops are out.

As IBC sums up:

Deaths are unchangeable facts of history whose number can only be cumulative. For as long as conflict related deadly violence persists in Iraq, more lives and more families will be added to its toll of victims. Thus, ‘fewer victims than in 2007′ is an abstraction imposed by a frame of measurement: the stark reality is that some 9,000 more Iraqi civilians have had their lives violently cut short since the end of 2007, most of them anonymously and with little public recognition.

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Iraq: A Lose-Lose with SOFA?

Before signing off for Christmas, I’d like to draw your attention (via Abu Aardvark) to this interesting new briefing from USIP.

The paper, written by Daniel P. Serwer and Sam Parker and titled Iraq in the Obama Administration, offers several worthwile recommendations to the inbound president on how to navigate the morass of Iraq. One in particular struck me as shockingly pertinent:

2) The June withdrawal from cities: Areas in Baghdad, Diyala and Mosul will see significant strains and may witness ethnic, sectarian or other violence.

  • Recommendation 4: U.S. forces, which should expect to live with a measure of violence, need to be ready to intervene quickly if violence reaches unacceptably extreme levels. This must be weighed against the political consequences (in both Iraq and the U.S.) of doing so, which could be damaging.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t see how this is going to work. My guess is the July referendum will end up scrapping SOFA. And even if it doesn’t, once U.S. forces vacate their COPs and JSSs, they have little chance of effectively intervening in case the bloodshed worsens — unless, as USIP’s seers seem to suggest, the U.S. unilaterally scuttles SOFA, which would mean — don’t you just love the irony — usurping the civilian government.

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Remember that funny word ‘DDR’? It stood for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration. In Afghanistan, it was a program to demilitarise the society after almost 30 years of war. The premise, if you will, was that weapons beget violence; that violence undermines the state; and that the first step towards peace is, therefore, to remove weapons from those not authorised to fire them.

You might notice that I’m speaking in past tense. That’s because DDR is no more. After a short and tortured existence, it has been officially snuffed out by the U.S. military, which, according to news reports, is planning — wait for it — not to reduce violence but to add another layer to it:

For months, Congress has been asking how soon the military could roll out ‘some sort of Awakening movement’—a reference to the Iraq program—in Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials. After initially being rejected by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the plan was developed this fall and approved just over two weeks ago.

But some senior U.S. officials worry privately about launching a program modeled on the U.S.-financed militias of Iraq, given the considerable differences in the wars.

Excuse the language, but — no shit, Sherlock?


International Crisis Group, in its update briefing on the state of policing in Afghanistan, has this to say:

As originally conceived, the program had a security function. Diluted in successive draft proposals, it now entails the appointment of community councils, selected by central government representatives, at the district level in “high risk” areas. As such, this seems less grassroots outreach than a continuance of centralised patronage. IDLG has recently emphasised that the program will not arm community members or manage armed groups. Instead the community councils would help strengthen security by supporting the police and security services, and thus enforce rule of law. If this plan proceeds, it should be ensured that the councils do not compete with the police nor interfere in appointments and operations. There are very real fears that if the councils’ make-up does not accurately reflect all local interests, they will only further fuel perceptions that state security institutions favour certain groups over others.

Josh at Registan has more.

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So this is how it ends. President George W. Bush, who probably couldn’t resist looking for that grand square named after him in Baghdad, was greeted with two flying shoes instead.

I completely agree with The Angry Arab that this would be humiliating in any culture. I’d hate to have it happen to me. And just imagine how Bush must feel: the wayward son of a war hero ambushed not with RPGs but with dusty footwear. How fitting. (No pun intended.)

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My favourite flying-shoe quote, from an Iraqi warrant officer interviewed by Wired’s Nathan Hodge:

‘This never would have happened in the time of Saddam. If that had happened, he would be executed straight away. They would chop him into a million pieces. Saddam would kill his cousins, his uncles, all his relatives.’

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Iraq: A Footprint Not So Light

Judah Grunstein, writing at WPR, makes an important semantic point about U.S. military operations in Iraq:

[...] It’s worth pointing out that despite the emphasis placed on a light fingerprint in the COIN tactics that guided the Surge, ‘light’ is used in comparison to war zone environments. What we call the ‘security gains’ in Iraq come as a result of operational measures that remain way off the scale of anything we’d consider viable in a stable civil society and that closely resemble the methods of regimes that we often blame for the emergence of radicalism in the region.

This is indeed worth emphasising. While part of COIN may be armed social work, not everything in Iraq is COIN. Last spring, when I was embedding with the 3ACR in Mosul, using tank fire and Apache strikes in the middle of an unruly metropolis seemed to be the rule rather than the exception. Don’t let the euphemisms fool ya.

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Echoing the recent ICOS report, Taleban expert Antonio Giustozzi offers a worrying year-end summary of the troubles facing the international coalition in Afghanistan:

  • The number of rebels is growing steadily and must now range in the tens of thousands.
  • The insurgents show signs of improving their tactical skills.
  • The Taliban in particular are also having some success in infiltrating the Afghan security forces, in particular the police, which is now in deep crisis in several Afghan provinces in the south and west of the country.
  • In some northern provinces – most notably Kunduz – the insurgency is beginning to represent a serious threat. Indeed, clear signs of insurgent infiltration exist in almost all the northern provinces: only Samangan and Panjshir provinces appear to remain completely free of violent activities.

This is alarming stuff for everyone concerned, save maybe for the Finnish ISAF commander who believes the insurgency is in its death throes.

Still, Giustozzi says, the Taleban’s campaign is “not quite trouble-free”:

Afghanistan’s difficult economic situation – and the large pool of unemployed and disaffected young people that is one of its by-products – favours the Taliban less than might be expected (even though there are allegations of a large mercenary presence in the movement’s ranks). Although high unemployment may push some people towards joining the insurgency, the same could be said of the police or the national army.

Moreover, the Taliban might now be experiencing a crisis of growth. Their expansion has made internal communication, and central command-and-control, increasingly difficult. Moreover, the movement’s leadership is trying to turn it into a more structured and disciplined entity. This involves a range of measures: insisting that its commanders behave more moderately towards the civilian population, marginalising its more extremist component, establishing a civilian administration, and expanding its judiciary into more and more areas.

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There is little in the new Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainee abuse that we didn’t already know. Still, when a bi-partisan report, co-released by Carl Levin and John McCain, says that top administration officials were responsible for the mistreatment of prisoners in Gitmo, Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s… kind of breathtaking:

Conclusion 1: On February 7, 2002, President George W. Bush made a written determination that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, did not apply to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. Following the President’s determination, techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions, used in SERE training to simulate tactics used by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody.

Conclusion 2: Members of the President’s Cabinet and other senior officials participated in meetings inside the White House in 2002 and 2003 where specific interrogation techniques were discussed. National Security Council Principals reviewed the CIA’s interrogation program during that period.

Conclusion 19: The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.

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Here’s a new brand name the next U.S. president will have to try and wrap his tongue around: Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Not only did LeT apparently train the Mumbai attackers, but, according to a United Nations document scooped by McClatchy, the group has “sent operatives to attack U.S. troops in Iraq, established a branch in Saudi Arabia and been raising funds in Europe”.

The group may also have received money from al Qaida, suggesting that it has close ties with Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network based along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, the document said.

Although Pakistan’s government outlawed LeT in May 2002, it ‘continues to operate and engage in or support terrorist activities abroad,’ the document said.

What makes the Let truly dangerous, writes Raja Karthikeya, is its “resilience and mutability”:

Most terrorist groups do not survive ten years of operation. Lashkar has only grown stronger in its fourteen or so years of existence, despite bans by the US and Pakistan and the pressure on terrorist groups after 9/11. It has successfully adapted itself to the changing political environment in Pakistan (from democracy to dictatorship to democracy) and transformed itself from a largely militant organization to one with extensive philanthropic activities, without losing its capacity to commit terrorist acts outside Pakistan. It has attracted young, urban professionals and enjoys wide support within its constituency.

It has shed the lure of branding just like al-Qaeda and operates under a number of aliases. Its not-so-clandestine charity front and the charity’s vigorous work in post-disaster relief operations have helped it raise millions of rupees which will help it survive international crackdowns. The Mumbai attacks testify to its intelligence gathering and planning capabilities in a hostile environment. Specific tactical details of the standoffs in Mumbai, (such as the blowing up of an elevator in order to take cover inside the elevator shaft) indicate the level of professionalism its cadres have achieved. The very modus operandi of the attack (an amphibious landing) could rank it alongside the Tamil Tigers in terms of innovation.

Last but not least, Lashkar’s leadership is ambitious. Even if their agenda has been impacted by al-Qaeda, they aspire to achieve the status of ‘liberators’ and will not be content to play second fiddle to any larger group. Thus, we must be prepared for more attacks from this group. Mumbai’s tragedy may just have changed the game.

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The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 without the military “having taken available steps to acquire technology to mitigate the known mine and IED risk to soldiers and Marines”, according to a report by the Pentagon’s acting inspector general:

Even after the war was under way, as the devices began taking a deadly toll and field commanders pressed for vehicles that were better protected from roadside bombs, the Pentagon was slow to act, the report says.

The report deals specifically with the Marines’ use of MRAPs:

The IG report says that the military ‘stopped processing’ a 2005 request for 1,169 MRAPS from commanders in the field. Another request came a year later, according to a letter from [Senator Kit] Bond and [Senator Joe] Biden to Gen. James Conway, the Marine commandant.

Marine officials thought then that adding armor to Humvees was the “best available, most survivable” option, according to the IG report.

The study’s results in brief here.

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